Testimony

Testimony regarding the DOE's response to incidents of bullying, harassment and discrimination in schools and efforts to improve school climate

Testimony of UFT Director of Parent and Community Affairs Anthony Harmon before the New York City Council Committee on Education

Good afternoon. My name is Anthony Harmon and I am the Director of Parent and Community Affairs for the United Federation of Teachers. I also run the union’s Be BRAVE Against Bullying program. I’m joined here today by Jeffrey Povalitis, the Director of the UFT’s Safety and Health Department. On behalf of the UFT president, Michael Mulgrew, and our members, I want to thank Councilman Danny Dromm and members of the City Council Education Committee for once again putting a spotlight on the topic of bullying in our schools.

One of the UFT’s daily missions is to make sure students feel safe at school and members work in safe and supportive environments. Focusing on student bullying is a big part of that, and has been a priority of the UFT since the union was founded. A positive school climate is an essential prerequisite for teaching and learning. As educators, we know all too well that students aren’t going to be engaged in teaching and learning if they’re trying to navigate chaotic hallways, stairwells, lunchrooms and playgrounds, or if their interactions with other students and adults in the building are not based on mutual respect.

We know many of our schools are clamoring for additional support. While some schools have implemented comprehensive and effective building-wide initiatives to combat bullying, others are still struggling with too few resources or the training to make meaningful change.

We also know that the Department of Education has gathered a lot of data about school climate, but we are deeply concerned that the DOE is doing very little with that information to help the schools begging for assistance.

Schools are a reflection of what’s going on in society, and if you believe as I do that the world has become a meaner and uglier place, with racism, sexism and religious intolerance in the news every night, you better believe that tension we’re all feeling rubs off on kids as well. We can’t insulate students from the outside world, but we can try to ensure that their school experience is safe and nurturing, and perhaps we can even help them navigate challenges.

The UFT has a robust health and safety team, and we have also made significant investments in several anti-bullying programs including BRAVE and the Positive Learning Collaborative. These two programs complement each other beautifully. BRAVE focuses on combatting student bullying, while the Positive Learning Collaborative helps schools implement school-wide approaches in creating a calm, safe environment in which teachers can focus on teaching and kids can really learn.

Building respect, acceptance and voice through education

We launched BRAVE —Building Respect, Acceptance and Voice through Education — six years ago to fight bullying in schools. This year, our phones at BRAVE have been ringing off the hook with requests for anti-bullying training. In fact, just a couple of days ago, we trained a group of 4th-grade teachers and we have more sessions planned. Workshops like these require a specific approach, because a 4th-grader understands language and concepts at a different level than a middle or high school student.

Our next series of trainings will focus on the needs of LGBTQ students, and how to support those students as they navigate their years in school. These trainings have a direct impact on the quality of life in school, and they are made possible thanks to the support of this committee and the City Council as a whole. As we try to keep up with the demand, we are now training additional UFT personnel so they can reach more teachers and students.

The Positive Learning Collaborative program: A Whole-School Approach

We believe that an effective way to resolve bullying issues at a school is through a whole-school, whole-child approach. That’s what you frequently hear from us when we talk about everything from our Community Learning Schools to the Positive Learning Collaborative program. When it comes to tackling bullying, every adult in the entire school, including custodians, lunch staff, safety officers and secretaries, must be part of the conversation. Every adult must convey the same, consistent message to students and handle issues with the same supportive approach. That means that everyone must be trained. Otherwise, there are gaps. Bullying and harassment thrive in those gaps.

The Positive Learning Collaborative program is a systemic approach that establishes a foundation of respect and tolerance throughout a building. The Positive Learning Collaborative is a joint venture of the UFT and the Department of Education that aims to do something hard: change the behavior of children through restorative practices. The goal of the Positive Learning Collaborative, or PLC, is to move away from punitive, after-the-fact discipline and replace it with proactive practices that can change individual student behavior and how staff responds to it, and in the process, transform the school climate for everyone.

PLC trains all school-based staff, starting with the principal and the UFT chapter leader, using Cornell University’s 26-hour course in therapeutic crisis intervention. This in-depth training teaches the skills and strategies needed to support young people in crisis. Since PLC’s inception, more than 1,800 educators have completed this intensive training.

Staff report tangible improvements in school climate. We’ve seen an increase in the number of students who say they are more comfortable talking to adults about personal issues; staff members say they feel better equipped to manage challenging behavior in the classroom. We’ve also seen a more consistent application of the new school discipline policy. As important, school staff report they feel more valued, that their voices are heard and that they feel increased trust toward the school administration. We have included testimonials from three of our schools at the conclusion of this testimony, and we encourage you to read them.

Every school should be provided with this type of school-wide training. Professional development should include topics that cover child development and how to respond to conflict. Training should also include how to de-escalate situations that invariably happen in classrooms or hallways.

Expand and enhance Respect for All

As we move forward, we hope the city and the Department of Education will continue to expand and enhance its Respect for All initiative. It’s a well-meaning program that promotes tolerance and understanding within schools, and the UFT has wholeheartedly supported the idea since its inception. Now, however, the DOE needs to take it to the next level.

As I mentioned earlier, schools are clamoring for strong anti-bullying programs. The DOE needs to redefine and expand the goals of Respect for All and put money, appropriate curriculum and resources behind that goal.

We also believe that it’s time to rethink, and maybe eliminate, the so-called Respect for All liaison position, which is essentially an unfunded, untrained and undefined role. In reality, the liaisons are most likely putting together some student activities for Respect for All Week such as creating posters for the school, but otherwise, most don't have much in the way of authority or dedicated time to work on anti-bullying programs.

As an alternative, we recommend the DOE put in place a trained team at each school. Headed up by the principal and other administrators, these teams must include staff members with whom kids feel comfortable speaking, regardless of whether those staff members are a counselor, a safety agent or a sports coach. This team should be given extensive training and must be given dedicated and specific time to spend with children. And lots of it. Working with children in crisis means listening to them, and that takes time and expertise.

Because in the end, it's not about putting a name on a chart or hanging inspirational posters around the school. Those types of activities may certainly help reinforce important lessons, but they don’t prevent bullying. They certainly are no help when a child is in crisis or a problem is rapidly developing in a hallway or classroom. But working together, trained personnel can make a difference in ameliorating the conditions that encourage bullying, and trained personnel can defuse a situation as well.

Improve transparency in school climate surveys

The DOE has a wealth of data at its disposal, thanks to the school environmental surveys. That data shows that some of our schools are clearly crying out for intervention. I’m talking about places where the numbers show morale and respect are down. Places where students and teachers are reporting that bullying incidents are prevalent inside the building.

The question is, once the DOE has the data, what does it do in response? In other words, transparency and reporting are good, but only if the information leads somewhere. What can schools that need help expect to receive in terms of support and guidance? Our students and staff are honest in these surveys, but to what end? They clearly say they want to tackle bullying. They want to prevent tragedies. But they’re drowning and looking for a lifeguard.

The DOE needs to take action in these schools. We need assurances that the DOE will be responsive to the needs in these school in a direct way, including appropriate funding, personnel and programs including counselors, behavior intervention services and anti-bullying training.

We are also recommending a change in the way the information is gathered and communicated, so parents have a better understanding of what’s happening in their schools and schools can dive into issues related to bullying. As they exist now, the survey’s questions and the data gathered are designed to mesh with the categories found in the DOE’s Framework for Great Schools. While that may help us understand schools on the macro level, we believe the category of “supportive environment” is too broad because it combines safety data with a host of topics including strength of pedagogy and help with college applications.

All of these things do contribute to a supportive environment, but a bad score could mean one of several things. Kids might not feel safe but a low score could also mean students question the quality of the college advice they’re receiving or they’re not learning how to think critically. We recommend that categories such as safety and bullying be broken out and reported separately.

Adding key personnel

Some students come to school angry, frustrated and depressed. Counselors are the key to not only responding when crises occur, but also preventing situations from escalating. We work hard to get students the support that they need, but we are greatly concerned about the shortage of mental health professionals at schools. We’ve made strides in this area under Mayor de Blasio with the hiring of hundreds of guidance counselors in the last few years, but the caseloads for these professionals are still too high. Our schools need more counselors, and what’s more, they need more mental health professionals including psychologists and social workers. The only way for these professionals to effectively do their jobs is make sure caseloads are reasonable.

It’s also worth noting that many educators believe that there’s not enough time in the day to address all the mental health issues we observe. Some of those services — along with other programs and a scheduled recess where kids can blow off steam — have been lost to longer pedagogical blocks of time. We may want to take another hard look at school programming, and try to incorporate additional time for students to take advantage of mental health programs and time just to be kids.

Closing thoughts

Every child comes to school with a story. While extreme poverty, homelessness, and mental health issues play a role in creating enormous stress on students, we also know that bullying is just as prevalent in some schools with less poverty where students may not have obvious challenges. This is why, even though we know some of these situations can be addressed on a case-by-case basis, the UFT emphasizes improving the overall school climate.

The biggest barrier in reducing bullying in our schools is the lack of resources and support at the school level. We are calling on the Council to help us advocate for these tools and funding. The DOE and school administrators are understandably juggling an increasingly long list of competing priorities when it comes to budgeting, but we strongly believe that the only way to achieve our goal is to make improving school culture a priority. More training, more resources and more personnel — those are the investments we need to make. Working together, we can make that happen.

Testimonials about the Positive Learing Collaborative (PLC) program

PS 55 BENJAMIN FRANKLIN SCHOOL, the Bronx

PLC began work with CS55 in the South Bronx three years ago. The school, situated in the center of one of the highest concentrations of public housing in the city, was struggling. Upon entering the school, it seemed as if the lights were off. The dimly lit entryway was gray, covered with 100 years of dirt. The halls of the school were loud and chaotic. Children fought constantly and were suspended for the infraction, nearly 300 times in 2014, the most in the school’s history. Staff also aired their grievances publicly, and most of them transferred out at the end of every school year.

After the PLC's surveyed the staff on the school climate, the entire staff and administration held open conversations and began planning together. A plan to rehabilitate the building was discussed with the principal and custodian. PLC worked to coach effective positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS) and behavior support teams helped the staff work together rather than continuing an adversarial relationship. A restorative approach to discipline is now in place preventing suspensions, strengthening relationships and keeping kids in class.

The result? Suspensions are down more than 200 percent and major behavior incidents are practically nonexistent. The beautiful halls of the 104-year-old school building are quiet as teachers teach and children learn. Educators now leave the school to retire, not to escape. Children are no longer walking the halls and are in classrooms ready to learn. The school's ELA proficiency level has increased five-fold since the PLC began working with the school in 2013 while math proficiency saw a 10 percent increase in the same time period (2013-2017). The school also went from a culture rated by the state of New York as developing to well-developed this past school year.

—Joshua Fox, Behavior Specialist for PLC

PS 94 KINGS COLLEGE SCHOOL, the Bronx

When I was assigned to teach a 12:1:1 with students who had many behavior incidents the year before, I knew a morning check in was essential. I began to Google “morning meetings” and spoke with our school Guidance Counselor.  With her support and my research, we began our Morning Meeting.  I didn’t realize it then, but we were doing “circles.” This year, through the support of PLC, our grade has been formally supported in “restorative circles” and that support has enhanced my practice and the impact it has had in our classroom. Circles are an opportunity to create a sense of community, hear your students’ voices, and set the tone for the school year.

I have learned so much about my students, my paraprofessionals, and myself through circles. When anyone visits our classroom, they say that every person in our room is a participant and our interactions are engaged and respectful. While our classroom is not without struggle, that is one essential truth that remains the same regardless of what’s going on and I attribute it to taking that time in the morning to do our daily circle. That circle tells everyone in our room, “We care about what you think. We care about your dreams and aspirations. We want to help you become a better version of yourself. We want to learn from you. You matter.”

You can see the impact of our circle when you compare the beginning of the year to now. We have less behavior incidents, our students are productively engaged, and students who were not verbal or social are making tremendous strides.  I know that it’s hard to fit in the million things that we are asked to fit in as educators. For me it was simple. There is very little learning going on when you have disruptive behaviors. Those behaviors don’t lessen unless there’s a buy in from both sides. In our classroom, we are invested in each other and genuinely care what we think about each other. For us, PLC and circles made that possible.

—Pearlina Nelms, Special Education Teacher

PS 42 CLAREMONT, the Bronx

Restorative circles have been embraced by our staff not only as a method of strengthening relationships among students but also as a means for building relationships with parents. Our kindergarten team made it a point to start their monthly parent workshops last year with a restorative circle. Not surprisingly, this team had the highest number of parents attend the workshops each month!

—Lucia Orduz Castillo, Principal

At PS 42 we have been doing a lot of work with restorative circles. During parent engagement, once a month, we have Teach Me Tuesday for our families. During Teach Me Tuesday, classroom teachers show families a strategy that they can do at home with their child to further develop a specific skill. My co-teaching partner and I begin every Teach Me Tuesday with a restorative circle with our parents. Parents get to share what they enjoy doing, what they are unsure about and even ways they work with their child at home. It so amazing to see families come together as a community and express themselves.

— Tara Doherty, Special Education Teacher

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